Here's the Future? (Random BEA Thoughts, Part V)
If you’ve read the first four parts of this post (or this piece I wrote a few months ago), you pretty much know where this is headed. After X years of keeping BEA confined to the “trade,” I think things have to open up to the public—whatever that might mean. It’s at times like this, when things are in flux and not necessarily going all that well, that we really need to experiment, to try something new . . .
In talking with Lance Fensterman (who runs BEA), I think we have somewhat similar ideas of what sorts of people should be allowed into the Expo, although we use somewhat different terminology. I love to say that we should open the show up to the public—that it should come to resemble a “Con” in which anyone with enough cash for the entrance fee can come in and mill around. Of course, since we are talking about books and not wildly popular TV shows, I think the group that would come would be pretty self-selecting. The collectors, the voracious readers, the book club members, the people who love literature would come—people who fit a lot of the categories of Lance’s redefined notion of “the trade.”
I think it’s pretty obvious what’s going on behind Lance’s rhetoric . . . the big commercial presses—who tend to spend the most money on the show and make BEA a bigger draw for everyone—ain’t very supportive of the idea of having the public be able to come to BEA. If it’s been written once on this blog, it’s been written a million times—publishers hate readers.
And what a muddy situation! This “public” made up of the same people who blog/tweet/recommend wandering around the halls . . . Where are their credentials?
That’s not to say that this idea doesn’t have it’s problems. One of the big issues is whether or not books would be available for sale. I mean, BEA is the American Booksellers Association’s big show, and I can’t imagine many indie bookstores would like to see the public buying books directly from publishers . . . And if the show did have some “professional” times in addition to “public” times, there would be some sort of switchover costs associated with removing galleys and whatnot and replacing them with books that could be sold. (Which is why redefining the word “trade” is a cleaner approach.)
But maybe there’s a still a way. . . . Hell, it’s been demonstrated (in certain studies) that giving away books actually increases sales. Maybe we don’t have to worry about sales at all—just create buzz with the public the same way we do with booksellers and reviewers.
Besides, it’s not like publishers were all that friendly with their galleys this year. I heard a couple of horror stories from NYC booksellers in which they tried to get a galley and were denied. Or couldn’t even get anyone from a publisher to talk to them. I can’t tell you how many complaints I heard (here we go again . . .) of publishers being extremely insular and only talking to one another.
Before getting more into the potential problems of opening up the show, there are other benefits than simply trying to generate excitement. For one, BEA would become a much better platform for discussing important issues. Booths and panels on the importance of independent bookstores would be really interesting and a great way to raise awareness among individual readers.
Or even better, why couldn’t BEA have a panel about e-books that includes a cultural critic, a publisher, an author, a reader? Create a space for real debate and discussion?
I know I’m repeating myself, but publishing is really, really shitty at doing market research. But what if you had a few thousand (ten thousand?) “regular readers” hanging out in one place where you could potentially interact, ask them questions, engage in some sort of feedback loop that would improve your business practices? This could be revolutionary . . .
Even getting back to the problem of selling (christ, what a phrase), there could be some sort of “bookseller tax” in which 10% of all sales go to the ABA or are redistributed to bookstores, or go to purchasing ads to support book review sections, or whatever. This seems like a problem that can be overcome . . . It’s been solved in Frankfurt. And in Buenos Aires. And Guadalajara. And almost every other country with a large book fair . . . And for everyone looking for ways of quantifying success, cash from sales and foot traffic from the public would definitely suffice.
Speaking of other international book fairs, these frequently seem to be a point of pride, a major event that everyone’s aware of, not just the handful of people in the industry. I mean, how many articles in the major papers were there about BEA this year? I’m willing to bet that there were five times as many in the Buenos Aires papers and magazines back in April during their book fair . . . a fair that’s open till 4am (seriously—4am) on a few nights to accommodate all the people who come and cultivate a true festival experience.
A BookExpo that’s about books, that’s connecting readers to books would seem so much more fulfilling. And I really don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.
But what will really happen? Well, rumor has it that the university presses are pulling out fast and furious, which is absolutely terrible. Where else do you have the chance to see so many university press books on display? In a local box store? Not a chance . . . And I doubt big publishers would be willing to go for changes like the ones mentioned above. They’re still clinging to the old models and ignoring both common sense and solid theory. So we end with Lance fighting the good fight, trying to improve the space in which publishers can promote their wares, but settling for a much smaller fair that takes place mid-week so that publishing folks can bond with other publishing folks and wonder just what the fuck went wrong.